at The Gaelic Grounds, Limerick
They weren’t expecting any homecoming ceremony but aside from the clear downplaying of its significance, Clare can still be wholly satisfied with their Munster League capture on Sunday afternoon.
It’s not as if the county can turn up their noses at winning a senior trophy, their first since the National League in 2016 and a first under joint-managers Donal Moloney and Gerry O’Connor. No, the hesitancy in celebrating is more to do with a wariness that there will unquestionably be much tougher hurdles to come, no more so than an expectedly slicker Tipperary side in the opening round of the League in Semple Stadium in a fortnight’s time.
Considering the personnel at their disposal including additional valuable game-time for Jason McCarthy, Shane Golden, Ryan Taylor, Diarmuid Ryan, Rory Hayes Niall Deasy, Colin Guilfoyle, Mikey O’Neill, Cathal McInerney and Aidan McCarthy, three tough tests in as many weeks have been hugely beneficial in terms of expanding Clare’s strength-in-depth. Not forgetting sharpening the axes of Tony Kelly, Conor Cleary, Cathal Malone, Donal Tuohy and David McInerney who along with Wolfe Tones’ Hayes were the only ones to feature in the 20 man effort for last year’s All-Ireland Championship Semi-Final Replay.
Tipperary meanwhile started with 11 of those who played against Clare in their must-win Munster Championship showdown last June while bringing on three more from the bench. But while returning manager Liam Sheedy’s body language definitely didn’t hint at any unwillingness to win, his charges appeared increasingly heavy-legged as this decider unfolded.
Tony Kelly was the ultimate difference between the sides though as his free role proved too elusive for Tipperary to even track on a GPS, with the devastating Ballyea punisher raiding for 2-3 to deservedly earn the official Man of the Match plaudits. Kelly’s ghosting runs cut open a very porous Tipperary defence that continue to lack a dominant full-back, an ongoing Achille’s Heel that Clare exploited with four timely goals to effectively seal victory long before the final whistle.
While spinal defenders David McInerney and Conor Cleary largely provided an assured solidity at the other end, corner-backs Jason McCarthy and Rory Hayes also impressed as did midfield pairing Shane Golden and Ryan Taylor intermittently while Diarmuid Ryan and Colin Guilfoyle maintained their superb January form to feed off Cathal McInerney.
And yet while they soared 12 clear by the end of the third quarter and finished with their highest tally of 2019 with 4-19, a slow start in which they only scored a solitary point amidst four wides in the opening quarter certainly didn’t initially auger well.
Colin Guilfoyle did cancel out Jason Forde’s worthy opener from a 45 metre sideline in the third minute but Tipperary also had two early goal chances when Michael Breen burst through only to hit his shot into the ground while a similar run from Patrick ‘Bonner’ Maher was also scrambled away.
With a sizeable breeze at their backs however, Tipperary began to pull away with four unanswered points through Seamus Callanan (2), Alan Flynn and Forde by the 16th minute, only to be rocked with a Clare goal in the next passage of play and very much against the run of play.
From the puck-out, Aidan McCarthy lofted a teasing delivery towards the square which Padraic Maher and Cathal Barrett both contested with Colin Guilfoyle, only for the ball to break in behind them for the waiting Cathal McInerney to flash to the roof of the net from the edge of the square, quickly followed by a Diarmuid Ryan equaliser.
Having done all the hard work, Tipperary were left stunned, opening the door for the overlapping Kelly to pour more misery on their neighbours in the 21st minute as he started and finished a rapid counter-attacking passing move involving Mikey O’Neill and Cathal McInerney to bat past the advancing Barry Hogan at 2-2 to 0-5.
From there, Tipperary were essentially embroiled in an rehabilitation process. So while Forde did inspire a Tipperary backlash just in time to pull level at 2-05 to 0-11 by half-time, it was only a temporary reprieve as Clare stormed into the new half to blitz their opponents by 2-9 to 0-3 in the third quarter.
Three minutes into the new half, Colin Guilfoyle collected a Conor Cleary clearance to cut in from the right corner, only to see his effort saved before scrambling home the rebound while the towering Newmarket-on-Fergus targetman also had a major hand in the fourth goal six minutes later when distracting Hogan for Tony Kelly’s 55 metre effort to land in the net at 4-14 to 0-14.
Having also picked off two angled points from the left wing, Kelly was a thorn that Tipperary simply couldn’t curb but there would be an inevitable backlash of sorts once Liam Sheedy emptied his bench.
A defensive error did allow marker Seamus Callinan to raid through the centre before offloading to substitute Dan McCormack to round Donal Tuohy and fire to an empty net in the 60th minute to slash the arrears to just seven.
However, they were unable to sustain that charge as Clare recovered with late points Guilfoyle, Kelly, Ryan Taylor and substitute Mikey O’Malley to secure first blood in what will be a derby trilogy with Tipperary in 2019.